Free Speech and Journalists: the Leif Parsell Case
When you have to shut up: Reporters and editors are generally big supporters of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. They bristle at any attempt to limit the information they can convey to the public.
But those same journalists are also often firm believers in certain limits on their personal right to express their opinions. They feel a responsibility to keep their own views to themselves to avoid appearing biased. They don’t donate to politicians or support controversial causes they might have to cover. Unless they’re on the clock, they don’t appear at events advocating for one side of an issue. I’ve even known political reporters who were so obsessed with maintaining their mantle of objectivity that they refused to register or vote.
Much of this is voluntary, but not all. Many news organizations have ethical standards they expect their employees to abide by – even though they infringe on freedom of speech in ways that would be unacceptable at almost any other employer except the CIA.
It’s not unusual for those applying for jobs in journalism to be asked about previous activities that might call into question their impartiality. While I’m aware of editors, reporters and analysts who worked in politics or for advocacy groups before joining (or rejoining) a news operation, it’s not the norm, and it usually caused problems, not only for the journalist, but also for his or her employer’s credibility.
The situation may be slightly different at places that practice advocacy journalism. At most of them, it’s still considered unseemly to work actively for a candidate, but it’s also a given that opinion will color the coverage. As long as that’s obvious to the audience, it’s not an ethical problem.
For that reason, nobody should be shocked if the reporters for the Maine Wire, the conservative website run by the Maine Heritage Policy Center think tank, happen to hold right-wing views, any more than they should be upset if the Portland Phoenix staff tilts distinctly to the left. (Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix, but I’m not a staff member.) But even at those places, there are limits.
If a reporter for a far-left alternative weekly started blogging on his own time about forcibly rounding up all those who disagreed with the official Communist Party line and shipping them to re-education camps and gulags, I doubt that person would be employed for long. If a journalist had a history of that sort of thing, I suspect they wouldn’t get hired in the first place, since most employers would do at least a perfunctory Google search before making a decision.
Which brings us to Leif Parsell. As my Down East.com colleague Mike Tipping reported, Parsell, the Maine Wire’s rookie reporter, had a resume replete with racist references. These weren’t mere slips or passing comments. They were repeated public claims of white superiority and of the inferiority of other ethnic groups that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Ku Klux Klan rally.
As repulsive as this stuff is, there’s no question Parsell has a First Amendment right to say it. But for any news organization striving to achieve some measure of respect, having a staff member with that sort of baggage is unacceptable.
To its credit, as soon as Tipping reported that an anonymous blogger had uncovered Parsell’s unseemly past, the Maine Wire’s parent, the MHPC, hastily issued a statement (it’s also on Tipping’s posting) announcing his immediate firing. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite good enough.
The MHPC didn’t bother to post any of this information on the Maine Wire, where several of Parsell’s stories remain online. It didn’t explain why an organization that frequently promotes itself as research-oriented was so casual about checking the background of an applicant. In short, it damaged the already questionable credibility of its news site and did nothing to mitigate that damage.
As for Parsell, it’s important to remember that he wasn’t canned for exercising his First Amendment rights. He was dismissed for failing to understand the ethics of his profession.
News Simply gets more complicated: Maine News Simply plans to start doing real news. The Portland-based website, launched nineteen months ago, announced last week that it’s planning to hire its own reporters and editors to produce original content for what, until now, has been little more than an aggregate of links to stories on real news sites. News Simply founder Stefan Willimann also promised to keep the site free, an apparent swipe at the MaineToday Media newspapers, which are expected to require payment for full access in the near future.
Tales of sales: Bangor Metro magazine will soon have a new owner. The Bangor Daily News reports that the six-year-old business and lifestyle publication is being sold by publisher Mark Wellman and his Webster Atlantic Corp. to “a group of Bangor-area business leaders.” The only member of that group identified so far is former Baldacci administration Commissioner of Economic Development Jack Cashman. Webster Atlantic is also unloading its other two publications, Real Maine Weddings and Maine Ahead, but hasn’t yet said who the buyer is.
Meanwhile, Radio-Info.com reports that WHOU (100.1 FM) in Houlton is being sold by County Communications for $375,000 to Northern Maine Media, a Houlton-based company owned by Fred Grant. Grant is paying a mere $2,965 a moth for the station over five years, after which he’ll owe a balloon payment of $280,000.
County confusion: The Jan. 2 Portland Press Herald had an informative story by staff writer Kelley Bouchard on why property taxes in many communities aren’t going down as housing values decline. Bouchard did a good job of explaining a complex problem, until she mentioned “[e]ach of Cumberland County’s 14 municipalities.”
For the record, there are more than fourteen cities and towns in Cumberland County, and two of those listed in the accompanying chart, Biddeford and Saco, are actually in York County.
Your editor wouldn’t be from away, would he?
Turn back the years: A headline from the Bangor Daily News website posted on Jan. 2:
“A year of bath salts in Maine; users getting younger”
Seems like the answer to the state’s aging population problem.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.